Monthly Archives: August 2014
There is a well-known study conducted in 1985 that ran a perfectly simple clean little experiment. One group favorable toward Israel and another group supportive of the Arabs were exposed to identical news stories about the violence in Lebanon in 1982. Even though both groups saw the same story, and all conditions of the experiment were the same, each believed the coverage was distorted and biased with respect to their own side; that is, they thought the media was hostile to their side. This is termed “the hostile media effect” and it very simply refers to the tendency to prefer your own group (either pro-Israel or pro-Arab) and distort perceptions of an “out” group and thus believe that the media are hostile to your side but lenient and supportive of the other side.
Given the orgy of news coverage surrounding the war in Gaza, and the inevitable outcry about media bias, I thought I would clarify some distinctions and explain the social scientific foundation of media bias. More journalists and reporters work more diligently to present a balanced view of the conflict then the public gives them credit for. But the same journalists will tell you that their good efforts to be balanced are for naught and they are flooded with mail claiming bias regardless of what they do. This tells you that the bias probably comes from the consumer of the message rather than the producer.
The general tendency to see bias is common enough. One of the most well-established relationships is between message distortion and group identity. If you sort people into two groups (e.g. Israelis-Palestinians) this immediately sets into motion a series of processes that influence how messages are interpreted. And, these interpretations always favor one group or another including interpreting messages as biased against their own side. The results of the 1985 study referred to earlier have been replicated with numerous topics and events. We prefer to think of ourselves as treating people equally or respecting diversity of all sorts but the truth is we strongly identify with groups and define ourselves according to group membership.
From a rather straightforward evolutionary perspective, any exposure of your ingroup to negative information is perceived as a potential threat. This stimulates our sense of self protection, which takes precedence over other cognitive processes, and causes us to question the nature and quality of the information. Claiming that the media are biased against us or the information is substandard allows group members to minimize the inconsistency between their group favorability and information inconsistent with maintaining their ingroup status.
Moreover, the more one intensely identifies with their group – such as a religious group or ethnic identity – the more individuals feel potential threat and the more intense is the relationship between group identity and sensitivity to information threats. These relationships are further intensified when group members consider their group to be particularly threatened or vulnerable. If you ask a strong supporter of Israel or a Palestinian whether or not they feel their group is vulnerable, or threatened, or disrespected they will certainly answer in the affirmative and consequently are more responsive than most to information threats.
There are of course numerous consequences to the distortion of perceptions and information resulting from group identity – sometimes deadly consequences – but the threat to democracy is a problem that receives less attention than psychological ones. There are three of them: one, the quality of information failure. Information is discounted or judged negatively sometimes when it should not be. It becomes difficult to find common information acceptable to both sides which is necessary for conflict resolution. Secondly, group identity distortions result in political polarization. The two sides of an issue see themselves as more extreme than they might actually be and retreat to more extreme positions which makes it even more difficult to manage problems. And third, the sense of being threatened or the recipient of hostile media attention creates conditions that justify more extreme or even violent behavior. The group considers its existence to be in jeopardy and this justifies more extreme behavior in the interest of “protecting themselves.” It is analogous to increasing constraints on civil rights in the face of terrorist activity.
How do we moderate group identity affects? We will pay some attention to that issue next week.
5 dumb moments when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. At the number 5 spot is Joan Rivers. She claims to know what is going on between Israel and the Palestinians because “she has been there.” I suppose if you can afford to fly to Israel then you will become knowledgeable. All of the nuances of the conflict become clear to you as you relax by the pool at the King David. Of course your credentials are never more evident than when you claim somebody else is not bright enough to understand the issues.
Howard Stern, coming in at number 4, uses the same approach to the discussion which is to claim everyone around him is stupid and doesn’t have the right to speak, attacks easy targets such as Rihanna, and spouts mostly macho stereotypes about Israel or the Palestinians.
Below is a video featuring conservative talk show host Dennis Prager (number 3) and he commits the sin of simple simplicity. Prager stares into the screen with an unemotional tone about how this problem is not so difficult, it all boils down to the fact that “they hate us.” Prager cites the line often attributed to Netanyahu that if the Arabs lay down their arms and announced peace there would be no more war, but if the Jews lay down their arms and announced peace, there would be no more Jews.
This is the “they hate us” theory. It is an emotional shorthand that distills every political disagreement and the entire history of the conflict including the clear political issues into a single emotional outburst. The “they hate us” theory trivializes politics, turns issues that truly demand attention into unsolvable simplicities, and promotes a defeatist sense that nothing will change.
I could not resist an example from Hamas which is just about laughable because it will say anything it needs to at any time regardless of the lie. Of course the segment is not “funny” but it is absurd which makes it funny. This fellow from Hamas actually invoked the blood libel’s from the primitive past. He did it in Arabic probably as a result of speaking different ways to different audiences. Still, to make reference to such silliness is so intellectually embarrassing that I just had to include it.
This Is Senator Gohmert from Texas and he fits the entire stereotype. This is the number 1 funniest and dumbest statement on the Israel Palestine conflict. The poor fellow has his politics, history, and religion confused and it is wrapped around his delightful Texas idiomatic speech.
Israel supporters are struck dumb by what they consider to be the great moral inversion. In fact, as Jeffrey Goldberg writing in The Atlantic states, “Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel.” It is an organization committed to genocide. Hamas represents nothing of modern democratic political theory– religious tolerance, political participation, association rights, liberal values, etc. But to the chagrin of many Hamas is treated as if it were a legitimate political party committed to the interests of Gazans rather than itself. Hamas is fighting a war in which they are trying to kill as many of their enemy as possible (Israelis); Israel is fighting a war in which they are trying to avoid killing as many people as possible. The moral inversion continues.
John Kerry is currently struggling with a cease-fire agreement because he insists on granting Hamas various rights rather than treating it according to his own State Department’s designation as a terrorist group. Kerry’s defense is that Hamas is a reality that must be dealt with and I agree with that, but one does not cave in to a terrorist group’s demand for their own security, funding, and freedom of movement in order to secure a cease-fire. On the contrary, that would be a reward for the group’s behavior and will probably encourage future violence if such rewards are available.
So what explains this? Why is this violent anti-Semitic group being treated seriously while Israel takes a perceptual and public relations beating? Why do the Palestinians, who are equally as blameworthy for the failure of conflict management, win the narrative? Why are they the sympathetic underdog? Here are a few suggestions:
Imagine some tough guy big kids in your neighborhood who are teased and taunted by a bunch of little kids. The little kids throw rocks, break the windows at houses, and spread false or distorted stories about these big kids to others in the neighborhood. The big kids defend their houses and respond to the rock throwing with fistfights they easily win, and throwing back bigger and harder rocks. The big kids do more damage and bloody the noses of the little kids and are “blamed” for inflicting damage even though they were defending themselves and the little kids initiated the aggression. And so it is with the Israelis and Palestinians. It doesn’t seem to matter how the Palestinians or Hamas behave, the Israelis get blamed because they are capable of inflicting more damage. The big kids and the Israelis lose if they defend themselves and if they do not defend themselves. So Hamas wins the narrative battle every time they manipulate Israel into killing Palestinians. Israel cannot escape the paradox.
Secondly, the Palestinians have mastered the underdog narrative. During pre-state Israel, and even in the early days of the state, Jews were the underdog and the center of world attention and sympathy. But now the left has switched its allegiance to the newest minority group. There is a spectrum of the left that never met a minority group it did not consider oppressed and the Palestinians are a perfect example.
And third, the second point above is informed by the context of anti-Semitism. I dislike and reject the notion that anti-Semitism is everywhere and always the explanation for criticism of Israel. Surely Israel can be criticized without it being anti-Semitic. But sometimes the criticism of Israel is so bizarre, so morally inverted, that only anti-Semitism explains it. And new media has brought violent and vitriolic anti-Semitism to the forefront. Anti-Semitism was of hallucinogenic proportions during the Holocaust, completely unjustified by reality, and there are moments when I feel the same conditions returning.
Finally, everyone has to do more. Israel has to make its case better to the world. They need spokespersons and better public relations to be sure. But that’s only a small part of the problem. It is not a public relations problem but an argument one. It is incumbent on Israel to do a better job of explaining to the world who they are and what they are fighting against. Moreover, Israel has to begin addressing those issues where change is inevitable. Settlements, for example, are just not going to be there in the end – at least in their present form. The only way Israel remains a nation of Jews, for Jews, and defined as a Jewish state devoted to some sense of Jewish particularity is by allowing the Palestinians to do the same for themselves in their own state. Israel must make more aggressive progress toward this goal.
Until then, Israel will continue to win military battles and kill more of the other side (which is never a very good measure of anything), but lose the narrative battle.